Walker Art Center
Musings on Globalism and Institutional Change

ON JANUARY 26, 2002, Kathy Halbreich, director of the Walker Art Center, and Vishakha N. Desai, senior vice president and director of the Museum at the Asia Society, New York, sat down to discuss the pitfalls and the grace notes of addressing globalism in one's institutional and curatorial practices. Following is an edited version of that conversation.

Kathy Halbreich: Some people think of the Asia Society as a culturally specific institution that focuses exclusively on traditional art. Since joining the Asia Society in 1990, you've been clear that it is, quite literally, a multicultural institution that highlights contemporary as well as traditional practice across the disciplines. Can you talk about some of the challenges of being involved in an institution that represents half of the world?

Vishakha N. Desai: It is interesting that even though the purview of the Asia Society covers more than half of the world, we call it "culturally specific" whereas institutions that typically cover Euro-American cultures are often seen as being "universal" or encyclopedic. Such perceptions are at the heart of how Asian art is received in this country.

One could argue that throughout the last century the ways in which the histories of Asian art have been told in the United States, and in the West in general, have tended to differentiate those stories from the present and from one another. When I began to ask why the study of Asian art so often excludes the twentieth century, I became increasingly aware of my own hybridity, which is also a reflection of the hybrid history of modern Asia. Clearly the study of this history, embedded in the history of colonialism, undermines the "purity" question that is equated with traditional Asian art.

KH: What is the "purity" question?

VND: Once you acknowledge colonial history, even for those countries that were not colonized in the twentieth century, the history of twentieth-century Asian art cannot be discussed without considering the intervention, influence, and hegemony of the West. It cannot be done. One of the things we've learned from the debate going on in cultural studies is that when you look at other cultures, if you keep them "pure" or "authentic," you also keep them ahistorical, nonchanging, static. But cultures can no longer be examined in isolation. The minute I ask myself, "Who am I? What composes my identity?" I realize that the privileging of Asian cultures as pure and as "other" is an ideological position that is not acceptable.

KH: I'd like to examine how art historians have tended to differentiate one culture from another, acknowledging neither the hybridity nor the perils of nationalism. But is it possible that one of the positive outcomes of glob-alism today is this sense of differentiation between and among ourselves, between and among our cultures, between and among continents, countries, and generations?